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Visiting the Lower East Side in 1905

George Luks' 1905 painting "Street Scene Hester Street" captures the bustling life of Jewish immigrants in New York's Lower East Side. The artwork showcases a market scene, highlighting the human density and cultural dynamics of the era. It also reflects the artist's controversial views and the societal attitudes towards immigrants at the time. Created by Smarthistory.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    So, he was a painter with a particular ethnic identity in a social context that accepted or even rewarded diminishing of people who were "other", and his artwork was purchased and hangs today in museums.
    "Othering" of people who are not "mainstream white" persists today. How and where do we see this portrayed artistically?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(easy jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Brooklyn Museum, looking at a painting by George Luks called "Street Scene Hester Street." It was painted in 1905, when Hester Street was absolutely packed with new immigrants, and that's what we're seeing here. - [Margarita] Hester Street was the symbolic and commercial center of the Jewish Lower East Side. Here, Luks has chosen to depict a market scene. We see two groups of men who are gesticulating and conversing with one another. In the center of the composition, a toy peddler, who's demonstrating a toy and his wares to a group of children and to other adults who surround him. There are other shoppers included, one of whom is a woman who's wearing a red shawl, carrying a basket. She's hastening towards the left-hand portion of the composition as two other men appear to be moving towards the right. - [Steven] But even though we understand that that woman is moving past, the way that Luks has structured the painting, they are confronting each other, and it does, to me, refer to the way that cities bring people together in unexpected ways. As we continue to move to the right across this frieze of figures that are so close to us in the foreground, we can look into a shop doorway. We see a man there, and then to their right, a woman who is holding a dead, plucked chicken and seems to have perhaps just purchased it from the store behind her. - [Margarita] In the right-hand portion of the composition, Luks has also placed a pushcart. - [Steven] And then in the very lower right corner, we can see the edge of a basket. - [Margarita] And there's also this very palpable sense of congestion. The sky is visible only in a small blue strip at the very top portion of the composition, and the tenements, the actual buildings and structures that make up this urban environment, have a sort of oppressive quality to them. - [Steven] And it's impossible to overstate the sheer human density in the Lower East Side at this time. - [Margarita] And there were more than 700 inhabitants per acre by 1905. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants came to America. This was the greatest period of mass migration in American history, and by 1905, the Lower East Side was home to approximately 500,000 Jewish immigrants, most of whom had recently arrived from Eastern and Southern Europe. - [Steven] And they came because of economic reasons but also because of political violence, particularly in the wake of the assassination of the czar in Russia. A series of pogroms were inflicted on Jews, that is, violent attacks on Jewish towns in what was called the Pale, that is, areas in Poland and the eastern edge of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. - [Margarita] And I think it's important to account for the fact that Jewish immigrants came not only voluntarily but as refugees fleeing the state-sanctioned violence. With the increased arrival of Jewish immigrants to the United States also came this rising nativist sentiment, anti-Semitism that became pervasive in American life and culture during this era, and I think it's impossible to consider Luks' painting without taking into account histories of race and immigration during this period. We do know that Luks creating a number of anti-Semitic caricatures for several publications during the 1890s that preceded his work on this painting, and like many other writers and artists of his era, he ventured into the Lower East Side with this kind of fixation with the Jewish Lower East Side with immigrants and the neighborhoods that they occupied. - [Steven] And if you look, for instance, at the physiognomies that are being depicted here, Luks is clearly carrying on this anti-Semitic tradition that had been so common in the press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. - [Margarita] What we know is that Luks talked about hunting types in the Lower East Side. - [Steven] This was a moment when there was fascination with the Lower East Side in more established and genteel parts of Manhattan. People would, just like Luks come and visit on market days to see the hubbub, to see the activity, to see these exotic foreigners. - [Margarita] And this type of unidealized subject matter was what was considered most revolutionary about the Ashcan School, the fact that they were not looking to genteel subject matter or genteel areas of the city, but it is important to think about the unequal power dynamics that are really implicit in these kinds of paintings. It's something that's not readily apparent, but Luks ventured into these areas with this express purpose in mind. (easy jazz music)